Peeping Shankar | Who’s next on the troll army’s hit list?

It’s not just Sushma Swaraj. The IB discovers that other cabinet ministers could also be trolled in the days to come, and sends out an alert. Here is the inside story

What do you do with a boss who likes to speak in riddles on Monday mornings? Well, you pretend you have been foxed by his cleverness and grant him the pleasure of explaining what he exactly means when he pronounces something cryptic. That keeps him in good humour and inspires him to Google search for 'original' smart things to say the following week. We staffers call it Mr Saxena’s Mundane Musings for want of a better expression to describe his efforts at establishing that he presides over a bureau where others are less clever with words than he is.

This Monday was no different, although his riddle was unusually impressive. “Shankar, this will be your Ernest Hemmingway week,” he said, looking up from the files and papers scattered on his desk. Well, that truly stumped me. Did he have some literary assignment in mind? You know, the kind where you list the books politicians pretend they have read when they have only gone through the synopses on Wikipedia. Or perhaps, I was supposed to find out whether sidelined BJP leaders (LK Advani, MM Joshi, Yashwant Sinha), inspired by The Old Man and the Sea, plan to go fishing with Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee for marlins in the Bay of Bengal to prove their mettle ahead of the 2019 general election. However, on second thoughts, that expedition seemed unlikely since the big fish in Hemingway’s novel - which poses a challenge for many deep-sea angling enthusiasts - is largely found in the Atlantic.

That apart, after wracking my brain for a good five minutes I had to finally admit that the boss had truly outsmarted me. “I can see you don’t have a clue,” he said with a triumphant smile, “so, let me give you one. Do Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj ring a bell?” That confused me further because for the life of me, I could not connect those two names with minimalist American literature. When I continued to look dazed and confused, Mr Saxena decided to deliver his knockout punch: “Shankar, haven’t you read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls? Well, that’s the big clue about your next mission - which will be to find out For Whom the Bell Trolls. Simply put: who in the Union Cabinet will be the next targets of those nationalist Twitter and Facebook warriors covertly backed by the BJP’s IT cell.”

I was, for once, impressed by Mr Saxena’s wordplay. Suddenly, it all became clear to me. How could I have forgotten the vicious manner in which Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh, two senior ministers in the Modi Cabinet, were trolled! The former for recently pulling up a passport office employee in Lucknow for harassing an inert-faith couple, and the latter for tweeting last year that “all Kashmiris are not terrorists”. So far so good. But what still intrigued me was why on earth would the government want the IB to identify possible targets when they were chosen by someone in the establishment.

I think you are aware that like our friends in the CBI who are ordered to investigate a case to ensure that nothing conclusive comes from their probe. We, at the IB, are occasionally directed to gather information with the unwritten understanding that we will generate alerts that are suitably vague and meaningless

When I raised a query pertaining to this, I was politely reminded that sleuths like me are there to execute a task and not question its wisdom. “Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die,” the boss said loosely quoting Tennyson to mildly rebuke me. I assured him that I would do the needful and that the hit list was easy to compile since trolls are, by profession, motormouths and are only too willing to share information even with total strangers. With that, I bid him good day and left him to his musings.

As I had promised, I had the list of proposed targets in the next 24 hours. Five detailed interviews (I pretended to be a bumbling journalist) with trolls did the trick. But it took me double that time to file my report. Reason: I had been instructed not to reveal names but identify likely targets by oblique references to them. That proved to be time consuming since I prefer to express myself in black and white and not in riddles.

Anyhow, for whatever it is worth, here is the list that I submitted to the boss:

Cabinet Ministers in the cross-hairs of Saffron Trolls
Anon Articulately: Call him the Speaking Tree of the government with some of its branches cut. This minister’s recent words of wisdom on Indira Gandhi are seen by the trolls as a thinly veiled criticism of the government. Also, to make matters worse, deep meanings are being read into some of his pronouncements by liberals on Twitter. That in itself ups his vulnerability quotient. He is strongly advised to exercise maun (silence) over baat (speech) since talking, despite his way with words, will only fuel the fire.

Highway Star: Over a decade ago, this mantri launched himself as a singing sensation in the BJP, rendering golden oldies at party conclaves. He still croons but about roads, bridges, ports and waterways. There is one view that of late, his melodies have become far too ambitious. Though he enjoys the support of a powerful lobby in Nagpur, he must be careful not to extend himself and break speed and song limits. Many trolls feel that his pretense of being lesser than himself is a ploy to hide his vaulting aspiration.

The Emperor: With a name that is often identified with a great Mughal monarch — whose worth was recently questioned by UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath — this minister’s past writings may come to haunt him. The troll army has not quite forgotten his criticism of an event that shook Gujarat in 2002. However, what can save him from attacks is the fact that he maintains a low profile. One suggestion on Twitter is that after the renaming of Mughalsarai Railway Junction in Uttar Pradesh as Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya Junction, the minister should also sacrifice his Mughal trappings and similarly rechristen (or re-Hindu) himself after the co-founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. With this act, it is felt, he can redeem his reputation among patriots/nationalists who may have misgivings about his loyalty.

Le Expendables: This is a sundry group of nondescript ministers who may be targeted only to prove that the Saffron trolls do not discriminate against BJP leaders. As one troll put it: “We have been given the go-ahead to prove that we not only attack Rahul Gandhi and other Opposition leaders, but also don’t spare our own people. You see, we trolls are angry people and our anger is supposed to extend to all ends of the political spectrum. Of course, when it comes to the BJP, there is a Lakshman Rekha we cannot cross. However, most ministers in this cabinet qualify as soft targets.”

(Incidentally, I also included in my report the bit I had gathered about trolls aspiring to be part of the close protection team (CPT) of the Prime Minister. Under the new security protocol issued recently, before coming in proximity to the PM, frisking of ministers and officials has been made mandatory. Apparently, many currently engaged in spreading venom on social media wish to go up the ladder and become “friskers rather than tweeters”.)

Suitably vague and meaningless
At the end of three days of labour, I thought I had done a reasonably good job of providing a list of future targets. But the boss was not particularly impressed. However, being the gentleman that he is, he was measured in his criticism. In fact, he sent me this personal note commending me on my effort before expressing his reservations:

Dear Shankar,
Let me first congratulate you. You extended yourself and as expected, you did bring valuable inputs to the table. However, I may be constrained in using them for fear of upsetting higher ups in the government, namely the ministers you have so cleverly referred to.

I think you are aware that like our friends in the CBI who are ordered to investigate a case to ensure that nothing conclusive comes from their probe. We, at the IB, are occasionally directed to gather information with the unwritten understanding that we will generate alerts that are suitably vague and meaningless. And, in such cases, should we even chance upon intelligence that is startling, it is toned down to render it innocuous. As one wit in the intelligence community put it: “The next time you are told that the CBI or the IB 'is on the job,’ you can bet your last rupee that nothing will come of it.”

Perhaps, I should have warned you more explicitly that nothing much was expected of us and we had to merely go through the motions of conducting an investigation. But as things stand, I will have to rephrase your report into a general alert. I hope you will approve of what I propose to send to the PMO. Study the draft and feel free to offer any suggestions. Here goes:

General Alert to Cabinet Ministers
It is reliably learnt that several members of the Union Cabinet could be targeted by those inaccurately referred to by the Opposition as the “Saffron Troll Army”. In order to guard against strikes on social media, all Honourable Ministers are requested to refrain from making statements or taking any action that may be construed as pro-liberal, pro-minority, pro-secular. Restraint is advised since keeping the trolls in check may be difficult as they only fulfill tasks assigned to them from responsible quarters.

Shankar, I am sure you will find it appropriately vague!

With warm regards,
Barry Saxena

I read the alert carefully and realised that this was no super sleuth speaking. It was the voice of 25 years’ experience which I dare not question.

(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)

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